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Jewish World Review June 19, 2002/ 9 Tamuz, 5762

Don Feder

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Hate crime, don't criminalize thoughts | After the Michael Skakel verdict, it can no longer be said that Kennedys (or Kennedy kin) can get away with murder. But they can still butcher the truth.

"Hate Crimes are terrorist acts. They are modern-day lynchings designed to intimidate and terrorize whole communities," Sen. Edward Kennedy hyperbolized on the Senate floor last week.

Kennedy was mightily miffed because the Senate tabled his bill to expand federal hate crimes law to include gender, disability and sexual orientation, so-called.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., couldn't muster the 60 votes to cut off debate. Daschle decided at the last minute to try to stifle his colleagues. But, why waste time dispassionately discussing legislation designed to counter "modern-day lynchings"?

In reality, hate crimes laws are an attempt at thought control.

The offenses covered -- murder, assault, intimidation -- are already crimes. The legislation seeks to increase penalties when they are motivated by bias. The extra punishment isn't for what the perpetrator did, but what he was thinking while he was doing it. It criminalizes beliefs.

Hate crimes also make a mockery of equality under the law by creating a dual standard of justice.

If you're battered, bruised and bleeding because your assailant has a personal grudge against you, the attacker gets one sentence. But if the same injuries are inflicted because of your race or religion (if Kennedy's legislation passes, add gender, disability or sexuality), the punishment is more stringent.

Is the generic victim hurt, humiliated or traumatized less than the target of group animus? If not, why is one crime more deserving of punishment than the other?

Returning to the Sept. 11 analogy, Kennedy charged, "Republicans made it clear they will not take action to fight terrorism at home."

"Terrorism"? According to the FBI Uniform Crime Reports, nearly half of all hate crimes committed each year involve nothing more than verbal abuse. The World Trade Center victims would have been grateful if the hijackers had simply flown past the Twin Towers dragging a banner that read, "We Hate Americans!"

There is no epidemic of bias offenses in this country. The FBI report "Hate Crime Statistics 1997" notes that less that two-tenths of one percent of all aggravated assaults that year could be characterized as hate crimes.

Except for a few fringe groups, comparable in size and effectiveness to the Flat Earth Society, there is no organized movement promoting hate crimes. There are no training camps high in the Bavarian Alps, where skinheads are taught to taunt minorities.

There is no Axis of Hatred -- no coalition of foreign powers actively promoting racist offenses in the United States. Aryan Nation poses no threat to our national security.

So, why the fuss? Why do Democrats insist that hate crimes are a danger to the republic comparable to Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein?

It's a cynical scheme to generate hysteria to harvest votes. By pushing these laws, Democrats tell minorities: "We're concerned about you. Those mean Republicans aren't. Little they care if you're the victim of a modern-day lynching."

With the credulous, this has paid off for them handsomely. In the last election, the sister of James Byrd Jr. (the black man who was dragged to death by racists in Texas) stumped for Vice President Al Gore.

Louvon Harris told a Philadelphia rally that George W. Bush, then governor of Texas, didn't think Byrd's murder was a "hate crime." (Harris supposed this from Bush's failure to support a hate crimes bill in Texas.)

Clearly, the three men who murdered Byrd (two are on death row, one is serving a life sentence -- without benefit of a Texas hate crimes law) weren't motivated by deep affection and esteem. Bush and other hate-crimes skeptics, including dedicated civil libertarians, understand this.

But should feelings be criminalized? How you answer that question says nothing about your commitment to tolerance, but it speaks volumes about your regard for the First Amendment.

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JWR contributing columnist Don Feder's latest books are Who is afraid of the Religious Right? ($15.95) and A Jewish conservative looks at pagan America ($9.95). To receive an autographed copy, send a check or money order to: Don Feder, The Boston Herald, 1 Herald Sq., Boston, Mass. 02106. Doing so will help fund JWR, if so noted. He is also available as a guest speaker. To comment on this column please click here.

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© 2002, Creators Syndicate